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Lucky Dad No. 19: Birthday Parties

Good luck to all parents in trying to find the happy medium between too much and too little when it comes to birthday parties. You clearly have to do something, once your child is old enough to understand what a birthday is, which is probably around the age of three. It's pretty manageable, at first. Your child has no expectations when he or she is two or three. A few gifts, a candle on a cupcake, the presence of grandparents (if they are available), and a round of “Happy Birthday” is all you need. 

You can get by with small events of this sort for a few years, but not for long. By the time your daughter is in kindergarten, an arms race is under way. Her peers are having parties with a dozen or more children tearing around. By grade school, there are theme parties; there are clowns, ponies, and inflated bouncing castles; swimming pools, game rooms, bowling alleys, and amusement parks. Your child may come home from a birthday party with her face painted like a Picasso, toting a “treat bag” whose contents could decorate a Mardi Gras float.

You can’t opt out of this completely, but you can at least engage in a little resistance. We tried to stay on the less lavish side of the spectrum. It helped that two of our three daughters had birthdays in the summer, when school was not in session. A typical birthday party would include five to ten chums over at our house, with a craft or similar activity. We had a lot of sleepovers, too. These left us a bit bleary-eyed in the morning, but they were a lot of fun.

One thing we never had was a piñata. Piñatas have been around for centuries. An internet search traces their origins to China, Italy, and Spain, but Mexico can rightfully claim to be the true source of birthday party piñatas, should anyone wish to stake such a claim. I know that piñatas are meant to be a harmless source of fun, and I tend to over-analyze these things, but I am uncomfortable with the whole piñata concept. You hang up this figure in effigy, typically an animal: there are undertones of sacrifice and slaughter. You blindfold your child; intimating that the child will not be held accountable for what is to follow. Then your child swings a stick at the figure until it is destroyed, after which a mob of cheering children descends in a frenzy to grab stuff as it falls to the ground. It is, in essence, a ritual of violence and greed, and it’s a little too “Lord of the Flies” for me.

When it comes to birthday parties, let’s be sure to give credit where credit is due.  Francine was the one who made them happen. She did the invitations, she did the planning, she did the cake, she made the treat bags, and all the rest. I was pretty much just along for the ride, furnishing labor on the Day Of. I will, however, claim one memorable contribution to family birthday lore.

When Katie turned five, we invited the kids in the neighborhood over for her birthday party. I had insisted that we keep it low key and inexpensive, and Francine was OK with that, on the one condition that I was responsible for providing the entertainment, whatever it might be. The day arrived—a beautiful, warm day in June—but I still hadn’t come up with anything. The pressure was on. Francine was not happy. Then inspiration hit. I went to the drug store and came back with a bag of balloons and a water Slip 'n Slide. Total out-of-pocket-cost: about $25. Our garage supplied everything else; hoses and buckets, an inflatable pool, and a couple of sprinklers. By the time the guests arrived, I had it all set up. We did the cake, we did the presents, we sang “Happy Birthday,” and then it was time for the main event. I gave a short demonstration, and then turned them loose. For the next two hours, the children ran through endless cycles of what has become known in family lore as the Great Around-the-House Water Obstacle Course. All Francine and I had to do was toss water balloons and spray the kids with hoses as they ran past. By the time their parents came to fetch their children, the kids were soaking wet, dazed, happy, and exhausted.

I ain’t no genius, but that was a one of my best days.

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